Updated: Jan 30, 2021
Across Europe hunting and shooting lobbies have been working hard to make sure that these activities are allowed to carry on as usual without being affected by Covid related restrictions.
FACE (European federation for hunting and conservation) handily published on their website a list of countries who have passed special legislations to make hunters exempt from Covid limitations on social gatherings and travel bans between regions. In fact, it is harder to find countries who have placed any limits on hunters and shooters, than those who haven't!
I have been keeping a record of such news from my living room, while the pandemic was raging outside, taking note of the many Governments which hurried to pass special exemptions for those who practice bloodsports. First, I remember the UK moving fast in September 2020 to make hunters exempt from the rule of 6. I was not too surprised there - in the middle of the grouse shooting season I had no doubt shooting estates would have found a way to twist the Government's arm and override the law to allow business to carry on as usual.
Then there was Cyprus, where hunters were soon exempt from the curfew imposed on all other citizens.
Then Italy, the central Government imposed tough restrictions on movement across regions, to try and curb the spread of the virus. However, in 11 out of the 20 regions, councils voted to override the national law decree and allow hunters and shooters the right to travel and sometimes congregate to pursue their activity. The autonomous region of Alto Adige was one of the first, followed in just a few months by Molise, Trentino, Toscana, Piemonte, Abruzzo, Liguria, Puglia, Umbria, Lombardia and Sardegna.
What is the rationale behind not allowing hikers to hike, mushroom pickers to pick and bird watchers to watch, but allowing men with guns to run after wildlife, basically affording them key workers privileges? Well, in each of these press releases linked above we see the same motivations: hunting cannot be deferred, as it is fundamental for the preservation of a healthy ecosystem.
I could write a book on why this sentence is flawed. I'll limit myself to linking here a small part of a rich scientific literature on why the driven pursuit of boar by teams of hunters, rather than carefully managed selection, actually increases the overall population of wild boar by breaking up the packs and making them more prolific. Sounds familiar? Badgers and wolves do it too, yet hunters and farmers insist that the best way of controlling their population is by randomly shooting them. As for wild birds, I can not fathom how killing them may help their already crippled populations, but let's get back to our tour of Europe for now.
Asturias, in Spain, another place where hunting is given special status and can therefore circumvent the regulations put in place to limit the spread of Covid-19.
Then we're in France, one of the countries with the worst infection rates in Europe, but hunters can congregate in groups of maximum 30.
Austria, Belgium, Germany, the list goes on.
Of course the virus doesn't make exceptions or gives special status to anyone, so just as you would expect these assemblies of people inevitably lead to further outbreaks. As this article reported in Italy, 30 new cases emerged following a boar hunt and the party's evening meal.
Last day of the anti-poaching camp in Cyprus and time to return to the UK after 4 months spent between Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus. It is time to draw some conclusions.
The first and most important one is about the situation in the British ESBA in Cyprus. Illegal bird poaching could be stopped, quite quickly and easily in fact, if only there was the will to do so from Great Britain. It would be enough to send a contingent of trained policemen to the SBAs to patrol and arrest anyone who traps birds and it would take relatively little time and effort to stop the great majority of those. But the British authorities in Cyprus must have some reason not to do so, either to keep quiet and let the massacre continue for the sake of “peaceful” coexistence with the Cypriots, or for some other reason. So how do we stop this? I’m asking this to you. I’ve told you the story and now I would like your help and opinions. Taking down nets and destroying decoys is not enough and unless we can get 300 volunteers on the ground to do so for a year, poaching won’t stop nor reduce. So how do we get Britain to wake up and stop turning a blind eye on the Cyprus songbird massacre?
Of course my answer is media, pressure, and films. But I might be biased as a filmmaker.
The second and more positive message I have learnt is how much truly dedicated people can achieve. I believe the world is full of people who “care” but don’t act because of disillusionment and fear of failure. The media make us feel disempowered all the time, portraying issues as too big to be tackled by any single person and thus taking away from us the confidence in the power of the individual. But then occasionally we also meet people who alone have managed to move mountains, shake spirits and achieve tangible results and these people aren’t special, they just decided to stop wishing and start acting. I am full of awe and admiration for these people and I am thankful I had the privilege of spending two weeks surrounded by them.
And now, time to start editing!
Day 7 of the anti-poaching camp in Cyprus. For those who have followed the story so far it should have become clear that a great deal of the trapping, where the situation is most dangerous and out of control, is taking place in the ESBA (Eastern Sovereign Base Areas) of Cyprus. There are two sections of the ESBA: Ayos Nikolaos and Cape Pyla, connected by a thin corridor and both very heavily patrolled by poachers who are guarding the trapping sites from us and whoever else might get in the way of their profits.
So far our incursions to these areas have only been limited to the night time, when we can move about and hide more easily from the armed patrols. After 5am, as the sky begins to glow, it is generally too dangerous for us to be on the ground and we need to move out. That’s also when the poachers “go to work”, and they literally form convoys of cars driving from the Republic of Cyprus into the ESBAs to collect the birds. In less than one hour each poacher reaches their trapping site, made up of bushes, olive groves and acacia trees, now filled with birds that have been attracted by the decoys playing deceitful bird songs all night. The poachers would then quickly set up their nets, throw stones at the bushes and trees to flush the birds which normally panic and fly straight into the nets. Then with a knife they quickly kill them and collect them in buckets. On a “good day”, a poacher once revealed, up to 700 birds can be collected. Half an hour later the net is taken down and the decoys are switched off for the day. It’s a fast, deadly routine that is repeated every day, over the whole migration period.
Yesterday, with Chris Packham’s crew, we tried to witness and film this as it happened, for the first time. Since being on the ground is too dangerous we decided to rent a boat and approach Cape Pyla from the sea. It was 5.45am when we stopped the boat engine at the eastern side of the Cape. Still completely dark, you could hear loud and clear the hundreds of decoys playing the blackcap song, a haunting and disturbing choir. At 6am we started to see the lights of the torches, first one, then three, six, then many more appearing over the hill, as the trappers moved in and took position, each by their own trapping site. As the first light broke, the decoys were switched off and poachers began throwing rocks at the bushes. For 10 minutes we watched with our mouths open as hundreds of scared birds flew around the Cape and into the nets. Then the killing took place, of not just blackcaps but also owls, shrikes and anything else unfortunate enough to have feathers. Luke, Chris Packham’s cameraman, filmed everything while Andrea from CABS was glued to his binoculars in the most distressful silence. Half an hour later business was over and everything was silent again.
Below you can see an image of what Cape Pyla looks like from the sea, minutes after the slaughter was over. It looks pretty and peaceful doesn't it?